The New Hampshire-based minister talks about growing up in Adolf Hitler’s Germany and his father’s complicity in the Nazi extermination of Jews
By Paul Knowles
QYou’re a retired theology professor and an ordained United Church minister. But you grew up in Germany during the Second World War. What was your childhood like?
A I was born in 1935, in a town called Leuna in central Germany. Hitler was at his peak of popularity. I was four years old when the war broke out. I had no experience of the war at that time, except when classmates, relatives or neighbours would say, “So-and-so didn’t come back from the front.”
But in 1944, the Allied bombing raids began on Leuna; the campaign included Canadians who would have flown the Lancaster bombers. Our town was a highly significant military target — we experienced 28 major air raids. We had to rush from our home to an air-raid shelter.
Ten days before the end of the war, my brother, a 16-year-old Hitler Youth volunteer, was killed on the front. My father was not in the armed forces because of his position in the IG Farben company.
QWas your family religious?
A Our family had regular devotions on Sunday mornings. We would read the Bible, pray and sing, and go to church afterwards. My parents were decent, pious Christians. My own faith is rooted in that.
QIG Farben was Germany’s largest chemical company and deeply implicated in the Nazi regime. What can you tell me about your father’s work there?
A IG Farben built camp three at Auschwitz. My father didn’t work there. Heinrich Himmler [a senior Nazi official] offered my father’s company the work force — the extermination camp inmates. When the workers arrived at camp three [also called Auschwitz-Monowitz], there was another selection: who could work and who could not.
The man who made those selections was a close friend of my father’s, a wonderful father and husband, a civic-minded guy. [He] knew that people who were refused would be gassed and killed.
A memorial book commemorating Jewish labourers who died includes 33,000 names, but the estimate of people exterminated by my father’s company ranges up to 100,000.
QYou were raised in an environment that was inherently anti-Semitic. When did your attitudes change?
A In Germany, I had never met someone I knew to be Jewish. I’m a typical postwar-generation German. After the war, we were preoccupied with our own suffering, not the suffering of others.
My family moved to Switzerland when I was 14, and then to Canada in 1952, when I started at McGill University.
In 1955 in Montreal, a friend I liked a lot was in three classes with me. We would play snooker. During one game, he hit his knee and uttered something. I said, “I didn’t know you spoke German.” He said, “That was not German; that was Yiddish.”
It was like a curtain falling away from me. Everything I had learned about Jews — from my school, my church, my family — was false. He didn’t cheat. He didn’t tell me lies. That was the beginning.
One of my classmates was [singer-songwriter] Leonard Cohen. I said, “Why should I look at this guy and think [badly] about him?”
At age 19, I became a candidate for the ministry. In 1961, I was ordained.
QDid your new understanding cause a rift with your parents?
A In 1961, I began to ask questions. I asked them, “How much did you know?” Their answer: “We didn’t know.”
I asked my father, “But you knew the fellow who ran Auschwitz III?” He said, “We certainly didn’t know.”
asked if he ever went to Auschwitz. He said no. But after he died, my
stepmother gave me a little black book that listed all the paintings my
father had seen, because she knew I also loved art. At the very back of
the book were three pages of his business trips between 1940 and 1945.
In my father’s handwriting, it read, “1944, Auschwitz.”
father lied to me. He was part of the program at IG Farben . . .
exterminating Jews. My father knew they were gassed and killed.
love my father. But I have to love my father as someone who lied, and
someone who knew. I call myself a child of a perpetrator.
QIs Germany coming to terms with responsibility for the Holocaust?
What the Germans have finally grasped is that they can now mourn what’s
done in their name. But concurrent with that is the rebirth of Nazi
groups. I’m unhappy about that, but much happier that the German
government, schools and churches have had to face it, to make sure it
doesn’t happen again. We Germans bear a responsibility for what has
happened and what is going to happen.
There is a parallel here to
Canadians seeing that what we have done to Native people is godawful.
Not only the church but also the government has given an apology. I’m
glad I’m a Canadian and part of the United Church, so I can experience
this new birth.
QBut you now live in the United States, where racism seems to be growing.
The Southern Poverty Law Center says there are more than 900 hate
groups in the United States, including well over 100 specific
What is certainly growing is their
confidence. They are now coming out without masks in many instances and
showing their faces. In Charlottesville, Va., it was like the Nazis in
1938, with torches.
They are confident that there is enough
support among white citizens that they can find a public echo. The
election of Donald Trump as president is a significant contributing
factor in this growth of confidence.
QWhat should Christians do?
It’s not an easy question. Excepting public radio, the mainstream media
here will pooh-pooh any kind of counter-demonstration. They don’t think
As followers of Christ, when we meet someone who
is a foreigner, we must show them they are noticed, welcomed, accepted.
They are not alone, but a child of God like us. I think that the church
has a lot of learning still to do in not turning down another human
QChristian theology has been used to defend all manner of racist evils. Is there a flaw in our theology or in the Bible itself?
The whole Christian story — the rejection of Jesus by the Jewish
society, so the church is now the chosen people — is a radically
anti-Jewish position. We are followers of Jewish Jesus. We want to
embrace his God, the God of Israel. Once we are alert to the tradition
of anti-Judaism in the church, we can begin to read the text
differently. We need to talk to the Jews to develop the right
QHow do you cope with your own personal history?
I am an anti-Semite in remission. It is a burden I bear, but it isn’t
destroying me. I attribute that to my many close friends who are Jewish,
who tell me, “Work with us on anti-Semitism.” If I stop doing this, I’m
going to let them down.
I belong to an international group of
Holocaust scholars. Last year, we went together to Auschwitz. We came to
the execution wall, where they lined up people and shot them.
Spontaneously, our Jewish men put on kippot [skullcaps] and knelt down.
One of my Jewish colleagues said, “Martin, come and join us.” When a
Jewish woman can go to a German man and say that, I know what
resurrection is about.
This interview has been condensed and edited from two conversations.
Last century was the most violent in history, with more than 203 million killed in wars — more than all the preceding centuries combined. In today's armed conflicts, more than 90 percent of casualties are civilians — half of which are children.
by Observer Staff
Keep it free!
If you enjoy reading our online stories about ethical living, justice and faith, please make a donation to the Friends of The Observer Fund. Supporting our award-winning journalism will help you and others to continue to access ucobserver.org for free in the months to come.
Anne Bokma left the Dutch Reformed Church as a young adult and eventually became a member of the United Church and then the Unitarian Universalists. Having long explored the "spiritual but not religious" demographic as a writer, she decided to immerse herself in practices — like hiring a soul coach, secular choir-singing and forest bathing — for 12 months to find both enlightenment and entertainment.
Founded in 1829, The United Church Observer is the oldest continuously published magazine in North America and the second oldest in the English speaking world. It has won international acclaim for journalistic excellence and garnered more awards for writing than any other Canadian religious publication. Read more...
Editor/Publisher: Jocelyn Bell
Managing Editor (Print and digital): Kristy Woudstra